Things We Learned: Book, Notre Dame ‘playmakers’ channel their inner-Clemson, bring their own guts

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Despite their literal connotation, guts are an intangible concept. Clemson has been famously bringing its own guts since beating Notre Dame in a figurative hurricane in 2015. In double overtime Saturday, the No. 4 Irish finally brought theirs, and they thus enjoyed a 47-40 win against the No. 1 Tigers.

Namely, fifth-year quarterback Ian Book played with more guts — and if this space wasn’t intent on a PG-rating, another intangible concept might fit even better here. When Book fumbled away a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, it could have ended his day for all intents and purposes. Frankly, it was such a crucial moment, running toward the goal line, appearing one body-length away from scoring, the fumble arguably should have ended his day for all intents and purposes.

That is not to say Book should have been benched. That is to say, you and I would have beat ourselves into an unproductive pulp following that mistake. Not Book.

“Things happen,” he said, doing this space’s PG intents a favor. “Playmakers forget about it.”

Let’s forever do away with the diminutive “game manager” label when it comes to Book.

He’s a playmaker. And he forgot about the error in the most dramatic of ways.

You don’t account for 385 yards against the No. 1 team in the country on a 36-game regular-season winning streak if you aren’t a playmaker. You don’t direct a game-tying drive in 92 seconds after 58 minutes of offensive frustrations, including your own costly fumble, if you aren’t a playmaker. You don’t repeatedly turn sure-sacks into small gains if you aren’t a playmaker.

A playmaker with guts. Or grit. Or whatever other intangible nouns you might want to apply.

“[Head coach Brian] Kelly didn’t give up, this whole team never gave up, and there was not a moment where I didn’t think we were going to win,” Book said. “… When you play a great team, not everything is going to go your way.”

It didn’t. Notre Dame left 15 points in the red zone Saturday, including the seven tied to Book’s fumble. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer got off to a rough start, a false start dooming a fourth-and-one inside the five and a dropped pass at the goal line short-circuiting two red-zone drives, prompting field goals that allowed Clemson to avoid a big hole. As usual, the Irish defense held its own to lessen the effects of offensive mistakes, in this instance forcing a seven-yard, three-and-out following Book’s fumble.

Mayer also responded, another playmaker, with five catches for 67 yards. Responding from those costly mistakes with such production, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney would call that guts.

Swinney famously trumpeted “bring your own guts” after Clemson topped Notre Dame five years ago, a moment of orange-and-white relief tied to reversing the meaning of “Clemsoning,” bucking a reputation that seemed to rule the day on the field, no matter recruiting successes.

The Irish could and can relate. For eight years, Kelly has dealt with the stigma of Notre Dame’s national embarrassment at the hands of Alabama. Falling just short at Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015 did not wipe away the memory of that 42-14 humbling in the spotlight. When the Tigers cruised past the Irish in the 2018 Playoff semifinal 30-3, it was more of the same. It is less a manageable verb, but “Notre Dame-ing” had clearly become the trend of losing any game of true note in the most excruciating way possible, some nights calling for a controversial penalty to cause the most anguish, some nights calling for a blunt rout to spur the loudest outside laughter.

Fumbling away a chance to take a touchdown lead into the fourth quarter against a veritable dynasty, that would have been excruciating. It would have been the type of loss that could curtail an entire promising season, a la the offensive pass interference penalty in Tallahassee in 2014 or the allergy to precipitation in Ann Arbor last year.

That would have been Notre Dame-ing.

It would not have been forgivable if Book thus collapsed in on himself, but his teammates would have understood it a bit. They see the grief he takes. They understand why he deleted Twitter from his phone this season. They heard the guffawing following that woebegone evening up north 13 months ago.

“I know from playing (quarterback in) high school a smidge of the hate and the criticism that the quarterback position gets, but he handles it so greatly,” said senior receiver Avery Davis, himself an epitome of guts after (play-)making the two biggest catches of Saturday to cap a career that has only seemed to include him playing at all 24 positions. “Just to see him go out there and perform like that, it was amazing. To experience that, this is a game that is literally going to live on forever, and we just made history. Super proud of him,”

Kelly would have none of any more Notre Dame-ing.

“He came up to me, he said, you’re going to win this game. You deserve it, and it’s time,” Book said.

Book began the current 13-game Irish winning streak, the longest active streak in the country, by leading a last-minute drive against Virginia Tech following a folly of a defeat at Michigan, scrambling into the corner of the end zone for the 21-20 win and literally shushing his critics. He shouldn’t have any more critics.

Not after engineering a last-minute touchdown to force overtime against the best team in the country, not after forgetting about that fumble, not after showing that intestinal fortitude, which is to say, not after bringing those guts.

“This whole team just doesn’t ever give up,” Book said. “That’s what I could feel the whole entire time. No matter when the offense had to go out there and get it done, we were able to do that tonight. It took the whole team.

“It was just a really fun game, and it’s something we’re going to remember forever.”

1988 Miami. 1993 Florida State. 2020 Clemson.

Book won’t be the only one to remember it forever.